Reviewed on: Playstation 4
*Approaches a puzzle* All right, a new puzzle. What have you got for me…
*Tests a few possible solutions*
OK, no good. What am I missing… *Applies the logic taught by the tutorials for tens of minutes, to no avail*
Goddamn it, this is impossible! IT MAKES NO SENSE! STUFF THIS, THIS IS STUPID, PUZZLES ARE STUPID, STUPID STUPID STU- hang on… *Tries again, solves puzzle*
AHHHHH, THIS IS THE GREATEST ANYONE HAS EVER FELT. Man, that was so satisfying. I overcame the challenge; you go Tom. * Approaches next puzzle, attempts for tens of minutes to solve it*
OK, now THIS one is actually impossible…
The above scenario repeated incredibly frequently during my time playing The Witness, though it mainly speaks to my personal reactions to complex puzzle solving than the quality of the puzzles themselves. But I feel it is an important thing to note as The Witness is a game about perception, and if you haven’t perceived what it wants you to have perceived then your enjoyment of it will come down to just how frustrated you get when you’re stumped. As exampled above, I personally can get pretty angry as I feel like I haven’t been given all the information I need to see the solution. But in truth I had all the information I needed to solve it, I just had yet to see it.
And once I did, boy did it feel good.
Let’s back track to some context. The Witness is a 3D first-person game from Braid developer Jonathan Blow’s new studio Thekla Inc. Players find themselves on a strange abandoned island littered with various panels containing maze puzzles. As puzzles are completed in each of the island’s 10 or so sections, cannons emerge and fire laser beams directly at the highest peak of the nearby mountain, indicating that reaching it is the closest thing to an end goal in the entire game.
And that’s about it, for the most part at least.
There is no clear narrative unpinning the exploration based puzzle gameplay. The closest thing to a story is told through very vague audio logs spouting quotes from famous “searchers”, all of which are almost unreasonably well hidden and open to interpretation as to their meaning. At the outset this was very frustrating as The Witness just lets players loose on the island and gives them no sense of where to go or what puzzles to attempt first. This leaves open the possibility that they may wander straight into one of the more advanced sections, have no idea what to do, cry “unfair” like I often did, and rage quit. This exercise may teach one of The Witness‘ most important lessons, knowing when to walk away from a puzzle, but the lack of direction or initial purpose was quite a hurdle to overcome.
Once I accepted that a story would not be handed to me, my mind was able to focus on the challenges at hand. I won’t deny that I am a little disappointed The Witness doesn’t feature a more coherent story to uncover, as it certainly doesn’t reward you with any answers after all the work you’ve done. But letting go of looking for a story early on better allowed me to step into the zone I suspect Blow and his team were driving me towards: being calm, focused and ready to solve some puzzles. And the some 650 puzzles, while sounding incredibly simple and mundane on the outset, are truly something special.
Well, most of the time.
The puzzles of The Witness begin as simple mazes needing to be completed by drawing a continuous line from a start point to the exit. You simply select the panel containing the maze, drag the cursor through the correct route and you’re done.
That sounds like it would get tiresome very quickly, but Blow and his team never cease to amaze how many different variations they can throw into this very basic mechanic. My personal favourite are the ones that rely on something clever hidden within the surrounding environment. The most common, however, are various symbols found within the mazes that dictate the rules within which they must be solved. Using the above image as an example, both the sun shapes and the colours indicate certain parameters that must be met before reaching the exit at the top right. If you don’t know what those symbols mean, you haven’t yet encountered the training section for them yet and will have to come back once you have.
Now, I say “training section” but really they are a series of puzzles in quick succession that throw a new symbol at you. This method of training is really the only point of issue I have when it comes to the puzzles. There are no instructions, more the game assumes that if you make it through them all then you’ve understood the new rule and are ready to proceed. That’s all well and good, but on more than one occasion I made it through the training believing I understood the new mechanic, went on to the proper puzzles and applied the logic only to discover I was wrong. Somehow my incorrect interpretation still allowed me to pass the training as a fluke.
Trust me, the only thing more frustrating than a seemingly impossible puzzle is going back and looking at a finished one and trying to decipher how you solved it. Perhaps the insanely vague audio logs could have contained hints to the rules while also describing some story?
But the level of variety in the puzzles keeps each of the island’s areas feeling fresh and unique, as generally each one focused on introducing a new rule. Often then you will re-encounter a puzzle that was driving you mad earlier, but see it in a new way and finally solve it. And once you crack the systems The Witness is presenting to you, those euphoric epiphany feelings are amazing. And despite my rage at some of the harder sections and my frustration at the aimlessness of the narrative, I most certainly chased those epiphany feelings with a passion.
As a result, I spent a long time exploring one of the most stunningly gorgeous video game worlds I have ever seen. It is far from photo-realistic, instead it bursts with colour, beauty and a wonderful oddness to it. Nothing about the island’s layout makes sense. How can a desert, tropical forest and a snowcapped mountain all be within walking distance of each other? The several tree infested areas are a canvas of pinks, purples, reds and blues; the town and coast line littered with rocks and grass that are so detailed yet cartoonish.
I mean, just look at it:
The desire to just walk in a random direction and see what you encounter stems directly from the beauty of this environment. It is complimented by the lack of a soundtrack, just the wind rustling the leaves, the roar of a flowing stream and the occasional chirp of the birds. It is a quiet place of solitude, perfect for the intense amount of thinking you are about to embark on. There is also clearly a lot of mystery lying within the environment, with statues of seemingly frozen people scattered about the place, all the audio tapes, the bizarre layout and a wealth of secrets to find. Sadly there is nothing conclusive as to what these things mean, but it is clear there is more here than Blow and Thekla Inc are letting on.
I have never played anything quite like The Witness. It sits somewhere between a sudoku-esque puzzle book and an artsy walking simulator, having just enough video-gamey-ness to stop it being like the back section of the newspaper but not quite enough to call it an adventure game. While it lacks a clear pay off in regards to story, I suspect people will be discussing The Witness for years to come as they dissect the the audio logs and the island itself, desperately searching for some meaning to it all. It may take the “let the player carve their own path” thing a little too far when it comes to teaching its methodologies, but on the surface The Witness is a challenging, engaging and beautiful game.
Pros: Engaging, varied puzzles; visually stunning; deeply mysterious…
Cons: …almost too mysterious, with no clear pay off; flawed training system.